In the middle of the 18th century the Earl of Strafford was embellishing his seat at Wentworth Castle near Barnsley in South Yorkshire. A new wing was added to the mansion and the grounds were decorated with temples, columns and garden seats. Strafford asked his lifelong friend Horace Walpole for advice on an ornament for his menagerie, and this little gothic temple was the result.
The Menagerie, or Menagery, at Wentworth Castle (historically also known as Stainborough) was already well-established when Walpole was consulted. A substantial building, completed in 1717, provided a home for the keeper who looked after the ornamental birds and also provided a space for refreshments when Lord Strafford was taking his guests for tours of the park and gardens. In April 1738 ‘two good fires’ warmed a party who had been out exploring the estate, and an inventory of a few years later shows that the Menagerie House had a settee and cups and saucers for tea.
The menagerie grounds included ponds and cascades as well as homes for the birds (there is no evidence of any other animals). In 1771 there were ornamental pheasants but a poem of 1731 shows that there was an avian presence 40 years before that:
From thence with Pleasure you may see
Strange Birds at the Menagerie,
Some Squeek, Some Cry – Some Sing, Some Squall,
Whose echo Sounds unto the hall;
In 1739 William Wentworth (1722-1791) succeeded his father as 2nd Earl of Strafford of the 2nd creation. Two years later he married Lady Anne Campbell (1720-1785) and the couple’s social circle included Horace Walpole (1717-1797), creator of the gothic delight called Strawberry Hill in Twickenham. When his friends asked him to design a building for the menagerie, Walpole suggested a structure ‘in the manner of an ancient market cross’, and in particular that at Chichester in Sussex.
In 1756 Walpole’s friend Richard Bentley (1708-1782), a fellow member of the self-styled Committee of Taste based at Strawberry Hill, produced a drawing for Strafford’s masons and construction of the temple began soon after.
The menagerie was Lady Anne Strafford’s domain, and her passion for the peacocks and ornamental pheasants in the grounds led Walpole (who revered Anne as both a beauty and a wit) to refer to her as ‘the lady of the menagerie’.
Walpole visited in August 1760 to see the finished work and he admired the situation of the temple ‘on a high bank in the menagerie, between a pond and a vale, totally bowered over with oaks’. Walpole’s role in the design must have been pointed out to visitors as a traveller in 1761 noted ‘the Elegant Gothic temple designed by Mr Horace Walpole’.
Whilst Wentworth Castle was very much on the 18th century ‘tourist trail’, and is mentioned in countless travel journals, there are very few accounts of the little temple, but Arthur Young wrote a good account in 1771. He walked across a grass lawn overhung with oaks to find ‘a Gothic temple, over a little grot, which forms an arch, and together have a most pleasing effect’. Behind it was a piece of water with an island and the banks were ‘prettily planted’. The history of the chamber underneath the temple is not clear – it is not mentioned in Walpole’s correspondence and possibly pre-dates the building of the temple.
A little guidebook with the comprehensive title of Stainborough & Rockley, their Historical Associations, and Rural Attractions was published in 1853 (this is the source of the title image). By then the Menagerie wore ‘an air of neglect’ and the shrubs and trees had run wild. Some ‘traces of its former beauty’ were still visible and these included the piece of water and the gothic temple ‘on an elevated basement’, which was ‘beautifully artistic, and of elaborate character’.
Wentworth Castle featured in Country Life in 1924 when the magazine’s Architectural Editor H. Avray Tipping described the feature as ‘somewhat ruinous’, although he was referring in particular to the grotto chamber rather than the ‘mock-mediaeval frippery’ of the temple itself. During the Second World War troops were stationed at Wentworth Castle and the story goes that the temple was used for target practice.
Barbara Jones went to see the temple when she was researching for the first edition of Follies & Grottoes, published in 1953. She described the ‘little summerhouse’ as being ‘of the very best mid-eighteenth century gothic’, and she was saddened to learn that the building had been intact until the Second World War. When she saw it in the decade after the war the elegant pinnacles were gone – ‘wanton destruction’ was her conclusion. By the time the revised edition of her book was published in 1974 the temple was ‘only rubble’. Nikolaus Pevsner called the temple ‘the umbrello’ in the 1959 1st edition of The Buildings of England: Yorkshire the West Riding, and that name seems to have been adopted from that date.
The stone fragments were recorded by the National Monuments Record in 1965 and nature then covered over the remains. In 2006 Archaeological Services WYAS were commissioned to survey the collapsed structure. Happily, the masonry was found to be largely extant, and we can hope that one day the funds might be found to enable a restoration.
Much restoration work has already taken place under the auspices of the Wentworth Castle and Stainborough Castle Heritage Trust which was established in 2001. The site of the Gothic temple is not publicly accessible but a sham castle, temples, obelisks, a column and extensive gardens make a visit to Wentworth Castle (not to be confused with neighbouring Wentworth Woodhouse) more than worthwhile. The house is home to the Northern College but opens for monthly tours. In 2018 the National Trust took over the management of the gardens and park https://www.nationaltrust.org.uk/visit/yorkshire/wentworth-castle-gardens
No feature on Wentworth Castle is complete without a mention of the pioneering research of Dr Patrick Eyres and Dr Michael Charlesworth: their work is gratefully acknowledged.
Thanks for reading. To share any thoughts please scroll down to the comments box at the bottom of the page. If you are new to this site and would like to receive a folly story in your inbox each week please click the subscribe button.